In 1996, Wichita retiree Barbara Pate joined her first Global Volunteers Service Program – headed for Tanzania. A blooming adventurer, and recently a widow, she chose the African country partially to satisfy her curiosity about the continent. She remembered it as a meaningful, enlightening experience, writing in her journal that she was surprised (and grateful) to discover the team’s guesthouse had indoor plumbing, rather than the traditional “choo” she had read about. Two more service programs followed – to Costa Rica and the Cook Islands. When Barbara died in 2021, her daughter Paula Schaefer determined that a family service journey to Tanzania would honor Barbara’s place in their lives and reveal for her, personally, what her mother experienced. Following is an interview with Paula about how Barbara’s ripples of love and humanity nurtured in Tanzania inspired her family to follow in her footsteps.
“It’s been over 25 years since Mom went to Tanzania with Global Volunteers,” Paula begins. “My memories are that she was very moved by the generosity of spirit of the people in the community. I think Africa was just a really special place in her memory. She talked about the the joy of the people even though they had very little materially.” But, Paula’s mother, Barbara, discovered that the greatest wealth of the people she worked with was within their families and culture.
“Mom wrote in her journal, ‘This evening on the porch at the back of the house, there is a group of children singing. I’m not sure why they are, but whatever the reason, they sound beautiful,'” Paula shared. “Mom was right. It’s a sound that goes deeper than your ears; you can hear it in your body.” Paula said she experienced much the same enchantment on a sunset walk in the village of Ipalamwa, Tanzania in July 2022. “There were children in the (classroom) and they started singing.” She remembers the harmonies today.
“The way I would describe the people of Ipalamwa,” Paula offers expansively, “is that they have the most generous spirit. Karibu! They’re warm, gracious, and welcoming; young and old alike. The impact they had and continue to have on me is far greater than mine on them, I’m certain,” she continues. “They have much less materially than most and yet seem to experience more joy than most. That’s not to say that they don’t experience societal issues that are very hard to confront. My work there was actually working with women who have experienced some of these traumas. This was such a privilege.”
“When you travel, you meet the people you have known all your life.”
When she proposed the service program to her family – husband, John, and adult children, Sabine, Georgia and Jeffrey, she avoided forming any specific expectations. It’s not too often that we all get to be together, so to be able to have everyone there was so special,” Paula said. “I think I was more worried about being able to meet the expectations the community would have of me/us. We all wanted to be able to be productive and useful for the people we were serving.”
“I have a sister and two brothers, and from the very beginning, they were nothing but supportive and excited for us,” Paula continued. “One very special thing that happened was my sister, who has my mom’s journal from Tanzania, copied it for me to take and read while there. I had also had journals made for myself and my family. As I was presenting everyone with theirs in the airport, I found that I remembered to pack everyone else’s but mine. Global Volunteers encourages the volunteers from the beginning to be flexible regarding plans as they sometimes change depending on varying circumstances. My flexibility began before we got there, and I used the back side of Mom’s copied journal pages for my own. Now our stories are together. It’s a small thing, but it means so much to me, and was the start of Mom’s presence with me throughout our experience.”
She recognized her mother’s Tanzania spirit in two recently widowed team mates she got to know over the two-week service program. “Like them, my mom stretched herself to grow amidst great sorrow,” Paula recalled. “Mom had such an adventurous spirit. I’ve already encouraged a number of people to…serve and I’m pretty sure a few of them will do just that.” She said her daughter, Sabine, likewise hopes to coordinate a student group to travel and volunteer. “It’s hard to put into words how meaningful it is to think that even more people could be volunteering in Tanzania because Mom went there first.”
“I know I’ll be back. It almost feels like it’s not an option, but something I have to do.”
She said the team coalesced on the first day. “We became so close so quickly. There were three families – including ours – as well as other individuals. And our Global Volunteers team leader and other staff were so wonderful. I’m sure I’ll stay in touch with them all and regardless of when or where we cross paths again, as cliché as it sounds, they will all stay in my heart. We shared something so special. In ways I feel closer to them than to many people I’ve known for years. Mom’s story was shared, and on more than one occasion someone would raise a glass and say, ‘To Grandma Barbie!’ These are very special people to me. One night at dinner I shared a saying that I had heard that speaks directly to our shared experience: ‘When you travel, you meet the people you have known all your life.’
“They’ve Taken up Residence in Me”
“I almost forgot something very special!” said Paula. “We used to tease my Mom about a skirt she frequently wore, calling it her ‘uniform.’ I brought it with me (to Tanzania) and wore it to church on Sunday. The women of the co-op were then gracious enough to make two tote bags out of the material, one for myself and one for my sister!
The experience exceeded her (unexpressed) expectations for her family as well. She shard program highlights they noted: Watching the students’ confidence in speaking English and taking on new challenges in a world that was brand new to them. They were especially pleased to have completing more than twice the number of chicken coops than were planned for RCP families, she offered.
“I know I’ll be back. It almost feels like it’s not an option, something I have to do. The work is just so important; connecting with the women I worked with in the community. They are so strong. It was such a privilege watching them begin to relate to themselves with more confidence. I too would love to volunteer in other countries, and maybe I will, but there’s just something about the beauty of the Tanzanian country and the beauty of the Tanzanian people – they’ve taken up residence in me.”
“The poet David Whyte wrote that a full and untrammeled joy is found ‘in the claiming of our place in the living conversation, in the sheer privilege of being in the presence of a mountain, a sky, or a well-loved familiar face. To know: I was here, and you were here, and together we made a world.'”
“I’ve been blessed doubly – I had the privilege of making a world with Mom and because of her, I’ve also made a world with some very special people in a very special place.”